sexta-feira, 30 de setembro de 2011

Peter K Austin's top 10 endangered languages

The linguistics professor and author shares a personal selection
from the thousands of languages on the brink of disappearing *
Wednesday August 27 2008

Peter K Austin has published 11 books on minority and endangered
languages, including 12 Australian Aboriginal languages, and
holds the Märit Rausing Chair in field linguistics at the School
of Oriental and African Studies where he is also director of the
Endangered Languages Academic Programme. His most recent book is
1000 Languages: The Worldwide History of Living and Lost Tongues,
which explores the state of languages around the world.

There are more than 6,900 languages used around the world today,
ranging in size from those with hundreds of millions of speakers
to those with only one or two. Language experts now estimate that
as many as half of the existing languages are endangered, and by
the year 2050 they will be extinct. The major reason for this
language loss is that communities are switching to larger
politically and economically more powerful languages, like
English, Spanish, Hindi or Swahili.

Each language expresses the history, culture, society and
identity of the people who speak it, and each is a unique way of
talking about the world. The loss of any language is a loss to
both the community who use it in their daily lives, and to
humankind in general. The songs, stories, words, expressions and
grammatical structures of languages developed over countless
generations are part of the intangible heritage of all humanity.

So how to choose a top 10 from more than 3,000 endangered
languages? My selection is a personal one that tries to take into
account four factors: (1) geographical coverage - if possible I
wanted at least one language from each continent; (2) scientific
interest - I wanted to include languages that linguists find
interesting and important, because of their structural or
historical significance; (3) cultural interest - if possible some
information about interesting cultural and political aspects of
endangered languages should be included; and (4) social impact -
I wanted to include one or more situations showing why languages
are endangered, as well as highlighting some of the ways
communities are responding to the threat they currently face.

1. Jeru

Jeru (or Great Andamanese) is spoken by fewer than 20 people on
the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. It is generally believed
that Andamanese languages might be the last surviving languages
whose history goes back to pre-Neolithic times in Southeast Asia
and possibly the first settlement of the region by modern humans
moving out of Africa. The languages of the Andamans cannot be
shown to be related to any other languages spoken on earth.

2. N|u (also called Khomani)

This is a Khoisan language spoken by fewer than 10 elderly people
whose traditional lands are located in the Kalahari Gemsbok
National Park in South Africa. The Khoisan languages are
remarkable for having click sounds – the | symbol is pronounced
like the English interjection tsk! tsk! used to express pity or
shame.The closest relative of N|u is !Xóõ (also called Ta'a and
spoken by about 4,000 people) which has the most sounds of any
language on earth: 74 consonants, 31 vowels, and four tones
(voice pitches).

3. Ainu

The Ainu language is spoken by a small number of old people on
the island of Hokkaido in the far north of Japan. They are the
original inhabitants of Japan, but were not recognised as a
minority group by the Japanese government until this year. The
language has very complicated verbs that incorporate a whole
sentence's worth of meanings, and it is the vehicle of an
extensive oral literature of folk stories and songs. Moves are
underway to revive Ainu language and cultural practices.

4. Thao

Sun Moon Lake of central Taiwan is the home of the Thao language,
now spoken by a handful of old people while the remainder of the
community speaks Taiwanese Chinese (Minnan). Thao is an
Austronesian language related to languages spoken in the
Philippines, Indonesia and the Pacific, and represents one of the
original communities of the Austronesians before they sailed
south and east over 3,000 years ago.

5. Yuchi

Yuchi is spoken in Oklahoma, USA, by just five people all aged
over 75. Yuchi is an isolate language (that is, it cannot be
shown to be related to any other language spoken on earth). Their
own name for themselves is Tsoyaha, meaning "Children of the
Sun". Yuchi nouns have 10 genders, indicated by word endings: six
for Yuchi people (depending on kinship relations to the person
speaking), one for non-Yuchis and animals, and three for
inanimate objects (horizontal, vertical, and round). Efforts are
now under way to document the language with sound and video
recordings, and to revitalise it by teaching it to children.

6. Oro Win

The Oro Win live in western Rondonia State, Brazil, and were
first contacted by outsiders in 1963 on the headwaters of the
Pacaas Novos River. The group was almost exterminated after two
attacks by outsiders and today numbers just 50 people, only five
of whom still speak the language. Oro Win is one of only five
languages known to make regular use of a sound that linguists
call "a voiceless dental bilabially trilled affricate". In rather
plainer language, this means it's produced with the tip of the
tongue placed between the lips which are then vibrated (in a
similar way to the brrr sound we make in English to signal that
the weather is cold).

7. Kusunda

The Kusunda are a former group of hunter-gatherers from western
Nepal who have intermarried with their settled neighbours. Until
recently it was thought that the language was extinct but in 2004
scholars at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu located eight
people who still speak the language. Another isolate, with no
connections to other languages.

8. Ter Sami

This is the easternmost of the Saami group of languages (formerly
called Lapp, a derogatory term), located on the Kola Peninsula in
Russia. It is spoken by just 10 elderly people among
approximately 100 ethnic Ter Sami who all now speak Russian as
their daily language. Ter Sami is related to Finnish and other
Uralic languages spoken in Russia and Siberia, and distantly to

9. Guugu Yimidhirr

Guugu Yimidhirr is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken at
Hopevale near Cooktown in northern Queensland by around 200
people. A wordlist was collected by Captain James Cook in 1770
and it has given English (and the rest of the world's languages)
the word kangaroo. Guugu Yimidhirr (like some other Aboriginal
languages) is remarkable for having a special way of speaking to
certain family members (like a man's father-in-law or
brother-in-law) in which everyday words are replaced by
completely different special vocabulary. For example, instead of
saying bama dhaday for "the man is going" you must say yambaal
bali when speaking to these relatives as a mark of respect and

10. Ket

Ket is the last surviving member of a family of languages spoken
along the Yenesei River in eastern Siberia. Today there are
around 600 speakers but no children are learning it since parents
Prefer to speak to them in Russian. Ket is the only Siberian
language with a tone system where the pitch of the voice can give
what sound like identical words quite different meanings. (Much
like Chinese or Yoruba). To add to the difficulty for any
westerner wishing to learn it, it also has extremely complicated
word structure and grammar.
Wikipedia's page on endangered languages.

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